Democrats Score a Win on Guns, but Face Tough Road Ahead

Democrats overcome a gun-control filibuster, but their boasts belie the tough road ahead.

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Democratic Senator from New York Chuck Schumer delivers remarks during a news conference with family members and victims of gun violence, on Capitol Hill in Washington DC, on April 11, 2013.

To hear Senate Democrats as they broke a Republican filibuster of gun-control legislation, you would think they’d made history. “Love won this week,” declared Connecticut‘s Chris Murphy. New York’s Chuck Schumer cast the gun fight as a Biblical battle of darkness and light. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid crowed that the vote defied critics who call the Senate hopelessly dysfunctional.

But even Reid admitted what every gun-control supporter knows all too well: that Thursday’s vote was the first milepost on a very long road. All Democrats have done so far is limp to the starting line. “The hard work,” he said, “starts now.”

In the Senate, even clearing a routine procedural hurdle can be an occasion for triumphalism. Sixteen Republicans broke ranks to help Democrats overcome a filibuster by a vote of 68 to 31. Just two Democrats — Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mark Begich of Alaska, both up for re-election in conservative states next year — voted no. Yet many of the Republicans who voted to proceed with debate are likely to oppose the actual bill. One of them, South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, noted that the legislation is still susceptible to a filibuster. And even if the gun package passes the Senate, where the amendment process will begin next week, it faces even longer odds in the Republican-controlled House.

And if the politics are challenging, there is little evidence that the bill’s passage would do much to cure the epidemic of gun violence in a nation where 3,300 people have been shot to death since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in December. Its core provision is an expansion of background checks, now required only for sales by licensed firearm dealers, to gun shows and online transactions. While that would represent the most significant restriction on gun sales in two decades, it’s still a modest step.

For one thing, it doesn’t close gaping gun loopholes. “It just reshapes them,” says Adam Winkler, a constitutional law professor at UCLA who has authored a book on the Second Amendment. The bipartisan compromise struck this week by Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey and West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin exempts private transactions from background checks and record-keeping requirements. That means you can still get a gun from a friend, family member or neighbor without filling out the paperwork law-enforcement officials say is necessary to track gun crimes. That’s hugely important to the NRA, which fiercely opposes background checks and record-keeping — a fact that is surely not lost on Toomey and Manchin, who enjoy “A” ratings from the powerful organization and are intent on crafting a compromise that can attract broad bipartisan support.

In addition, “even the gun-show provision is effectively toothless,” Winkler says. “You can meet someone at a gun show and say, meet me in 15 minutes in the parking lot.” (The deal’s outline suggests it will address the parking-lot scenario, but it doesn’t say how.) “It’s hard to imagine how much more diluted you can get,” he adds. And yet conservatives in both the Senate and the House will do their best to water it down further.

It was the Toomey-Manchin deal, which will be introduced as an amendment on Tuesday to replace a more stringent standard opposed by Republicans, that allowed Democrats to win Thursday’s opening skirmish in the Senate’s gunfight. During the roll call vote Manchin, broad-shouldered in a brown suit, planted himself in the center aisle of the Senate chamber, grabbing backs and greeting well-wishers like a parent accepting congratulations at his child’s wedding. Toomey huddled quietly with GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell. When Manchin saw his chance, he steered his Republican partner toward a huddle with Reid, clasping his hands on both their shoulders as if to forcibly prevent them from escaping. Democrats smiled and glad-handed, while Republicans sat impassively at their polished wooden desks. When the vote was over, Blumenthal beamed up at his constituents in the gallery and gave them a thumbs-up.

One of those constituents was Jillian Soto, 24. Her sister Victoria, 27, died shielding her students in a first-grade classroom at Sandy Hook. Since the shooting, she has taken time off from college to lobby for new gun restrictions. On Thursday she spoke at a press conference in a walnut-and-marble sanctum on the second floor of the Capitol, fiddling with green bangles on his wrist and trying not to cry as she told an audience how she wanted her sister to have “died for a reason.” She was composed and articulate after the vote, but dismayed by the fact that it had taken so long to start debate on a measure backed by 90% of Americans. “It’s such a slow process,” she says. “It’s going to be such a slow process with all of the amendments to the bill. To me, it’s common sense. These are things that will save people’s lives. The fact that it took so long to do this, and that there are still so many people opposed – it frightens me. It shows that our country is in trouble.”

And what was it like to be in Washington — to watch her own moral certainty about guns, sharpened by tragedy, collide with the paralyzing forces of national politics?  “It sucks to be here,” she says. “I have to be here to honor my 27-year-old sister, because she was murdered. So it sucks. But I take some relief knowing that what I am doing is being heard. There are senators who are listening to us. And I take some honor in knowing that.”